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Isaac Asimov: Founder of Science Fiction
Writing fiction is a difficult task because it requires the writer to make up a tale with a fascinating setting and believable characters. Writing science fiction is even more difficult, because writers must create a future world, a world in outer space, or perhaps a parallel dimension that is the opposite of earth. Science fiction writers not only have to invent new worlds, they also have to create characters to populate them. These characters are often creatures with few similarities to human beings. Isaac Asimov has the imagination, writing skills, and scientific knowledge to write science fiction for future science fiction writers to use as a model. Isaac Asimov has an incredibly vast knowledge; he knew from a young age that his two favorite hobbies were learning and writing. His overall scientific knowledge is so remarkable, he is often best known for being able to write science fiction that is comprehensible to those who are not experts in science, yet the triumph of his writing skill is that he makes it all so readable (Gunn 8). Isaac Asimov is an immensely prolific writer of both science fiction and nonfiction who, at the time of his death, had written close to five hundred books. His works of science fiction and his methods of writing are what define the science fiction genre. In fact, science fiction is a critically accepted field, mainly because of Isaac Asimov. Although many writers attempted to lay a foundation for the science fiction genre, it is Isaac Asimov who sets the precedent for other science fiction writers to follow.
To define the science fiction genre, Isaac Asimov uses his vast knowledge of numerous scientific subjects to write science fiction that is understandable to the layman, yet still highly readable. Since he holds a doctoral degree in chemistry from Columbia College, it is no surprise that Isaac Asimov is capable of popularizing or, as he calls it, “translating” science for the lay reader; many critics, scientists, and educators believe this to be his greatest talent (Draper 311). Although Isaac Asimov grew up as the most intelligent student in his junior high school and among the most intelligent students in high school, he was surprised to find that he was not among the most intelligent students throughout his college chemistry courses. He decided that the reason for the difference between himself and the other graduate students in chemistry was that the other student concentrated solely on chemistry. Asimov, on the other hand, was interested in numerous subjects in addition to chemistry. According to critic Susanne Reid, Isaac Asimov is “nicknamed ‘the good doctor’ in science fiction circles because of his expertise in an amazingly wide range of subjects.” When he reached the realization of the reason for his classmates’ greater knowledge specifically in chemistry, he decided that he was “content to know something about ‘almost everything’ rather than to specialize in just one area” (Judson 41). His written work ranges from novel-length essays on chemical elements and books on math to historical fictions and a commentary on the bible. His works are also highly readable, most being full of informational details described almost chattily in contexts familiar to most young readers (Reid). This does not in the least bit mean that he is at all limited in scientific knowledge. He is one of the world’s leading writers in science and explains complex scientific topics from nuclear fusion to the theory of numbers, illuminating for many readers the mysteries of science and technology.
In Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, even a reader with very little scientific background is able to understand the scientific concepts explained. In the novel, a scientist accidentally stumbles upon a seemingly endless source of energy that costs almost nothing and causes no pollution: Plutonium-186, an impossible isotope with characteristics that are completely illogical. The scientist who discovers the isotope is even described as a layman: “You’ve done good work, I’m told, on para-theory. I recall your paper. On para-fusion, wasn’t it?…Tell me about it. Informally, of course, as though you were talking to a layman. After all, in a way, I am a layman. I’m just a radiochemist, you know, and no great theoretician, unless you want to count a few concepts now and then.” (28) These are the words of the person who creates what he calls an “Electron Pump” out of the Plutonium-186, which trades Earth’s matter with matter in another universe. Isaac Asimov explains the Electron Pump scientifically and comprehensibly, which makes the device seem like a conceivable reality:
We are faced with a substance, plutonium-186, that cannot exist at all…if the natural laws of the Universe have any validity at all. It follows, then, that since it does indubitably exist and did exist as a stable substance to begin with, it must have existed, at least to begin with, in a place or at a time or under circumstances where the natural laws of the Universe were other than they are. To put it bluntly, the substance we are studying did not originate in our Universe at all, but in another – an alternate Universe – a parallel Universe. Call it what you want. Once here – and I don’t pretend to know how it got across – it was stable still and I suggest that this was because it carried the laws of its own Universe with it. The fact that it slowly became radioactive and then ever more radioactive may mean that the laws of our own universe slowly soaked into its substance, if you know what I mean. I point out that at the same time that the plutonium-186 appeared, a sample of tungsten, made up of several stable isotopes, including tungsten-186, disappeared. It may have slipped over into the parallel Universe…In the parallel Universe, tungsten-186 may be as anomalous as plutonium-186 is here. It may begin as a stable substance and slowly become increasingly radioactive. It may serve as an energy source there just as plutonium-186 would here…I think that the energy source cannot be made practical unless Universe and para-Universe work together, each at one half of a pump, pushing energy from them to us and from us to them, taking advantage of the difference in the natural laws of the two Universes.
The plutonium/tungsten can make its cycle endlessly back and forth between universe and para-Universe, yielding energy first in one and then in another, with the net effect being a nucleus cycled. Both sides can gain energy from what is, in effect, an Inter-Universe Electron Pump. (26)
The science explained in The Gods Themselves seems to represent Isaac Asimov’s writing style; simple and clear, yet entertaining, which biographer Karen Judson describes as presenting “stories or scientific concepts in everyday language that readers could easily understand and enjoy” (93). This writing style sets the precedent for aspiring science fiction writers.
Not only are Isaac Asimov’s novels known for their comprehendible scientific aspects; he also is honored for the science explained in his science fiction short stories and essays. Some of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction essays published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction were honored with a special Hugo Award in 1963. Named after Hugo Gernsback, Hugo Awards are presented annually by the World Science Fiction Convention. This particular Hugo Award was for “adding science to science fiction” (Reid 20). Asimov’s New Guide to Science, published in 1984, ranks among the best science books for nonscientists. Isaac Asimov enables astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, and mathematics to come alive for readers who have little previous knowledge in these subjects. It is his clarity that earns him the nickname “The Great Explainer”; the Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan confirms this, saying that “Isaac Asimov is the greatest explainer of the age.” (Judson 94) Aspiring science fiction authors should keep in mind Isaac Asimov’s ability to write about complicated scientific and technical subjects in words the average reader can understand. One of these subjects are the rules he apples to robots’ functioning in the context of science fiction.
By creating the three laws of robotics, Isaac Asimov is able to set a foundation for many writers after him who aspire to write about robots and similar technology. He foreshadows the three laws of robotics in his early science fiction short stories that pertain to robots, but it is not until his 1942 short story “Runaround” that the laws are first displayed in their final format: “1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.” According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Isaac Asimov is, by creating the three laws of robotics, able to develop “a set of ethics for robots and intelligent machines that greatly influence other writers’ treatment of the subject.” In other words, human mortality is being reduced to essentials, with all robots being programmed accordingly.
Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics give all science fiction writers a basis to use when writing a work of science fiction. Isaac Asimov says that the “very first stories that really satisfied me and made me feel good about my writing were my robot stories, and the robot stories, of course, virtually every one of them, has a situation in which robots – which couldn’t go wrong – did go wrong. And we had to find out what had gone wrong, how to correct it – within the three laws of robotics. This was just the sort of thing I loved to do” (Goldman 18). Basically, his robot stories involve malfunctions on the part of the robots and the ways the human characters explain the malfunctions and correct them. Critic Stephen H. Goldman agrees that in each robot story “the conflicts that arise can be seen as the problems humans have in dealing with creatures that so faithfully follow moral imperatives” (19). Other science fiction writers also seem to enjoy writing about robotic issues and how to solve them, which is apparent by how many science fiction writers use the three laws of robotics as central foundations in their stories. In his autobiography, Isaac Asimov writes that the three laws of robotics “revolutionized” science fiction and that “no writer could write a stupid robot story if he used the three laws. The story might be bad on other counts, but it wouldn’t be stupid” (CA Online) These laws are so logical and popular, many people believe that actual robots may someday be built and designed according to them.
Isaac Asimov’s 1939 short story “Robbie” uses the three laws of robotics to create a change in the then current perception of robots. Previous writers always portrayed robots as monsters. Isaac Asimov twists this image by making Robbie a kindly robot with a “positronic” brain. Isaac Asimov coined this term from positrons, which are subatomic particles that have the same mass and energy as electrons, but carry a positive charge instead of a negative charge. Therefore, Robbie has positive characteristics instead of the regular negative characteristics of other robots. All of Isaac Asimov’s robot stories following “Robbie” feature robots with positronic brains, making the robots behave more human. Other writers have kept to this tradition, one example being the character Data, a robot with a positronic brain who acts like a human in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Asimov’s three laws of robotics ends the Frankenstein-monster era of robot stories, bringing in the more scientific story, in which mankind must make choices about robots’ capabilities and protect himself against any possibility that his creations might rise up and destroy him.
Not only is Isaac Asimov credited for the three laws of robotics, he is also the first to use the term “robotics”, a word that is found in a countless number of science fiction writings today. He introduced this word in the first of his robot stories, believing that it was already classified as a word. He did not know that he was inventing a word:
I thought it was the word. If you will notice, physics ends in ‘ics’ and just about every branch of physics, such as hydraulics, celestial mechanics, and so on, ends in ‘ics.’ So I figured that the study of robots would be robotics, and anyone else would have though of that, too, if they had stopped to think that there might be a study of robots. (Judson 35)
Isaac Asimov’s creation of the word “robotics” is just one of the many examples of influences that he has on science fiction writers following him.
Isaac Asimov writes stories dealing with contemporary problems, creating a type of social science fiction which leads future science fiction authors toward speculating the role of scientific advancements in the condition of society. He knows that progress is a “double-edged weapon, that technology, like magic, is in itself neither good nor evil, neither black nor white” (Holdstock 35). Isaac Asimov uses this idea to write stories that contain both issues that are controversial and issues that he believes should be more controversial; he believes science fiction could serve as an early warning for possible disasters. His written work reflects his hope that the earth’s citizens would acknowledge problems and solve them while there is still time, and according to Isaac Asimov, “the best way to prevent a catastrophe is to take action to prevent it long before it happens” (Judson 80). His writing is very influential when he writes of his beliefs on controversial issues because he has such a fierce passion when it comes to worldwide issues. Critic Marjorie Mithoff Miller agrees that “even his earliest stories, written when he was not yet twenty, show a real concern for people, and for social issues. As he matured as a writer, he continued to be disturbed over many of the same social problems” (Stein 39).
In his first robot story, “Robbie,” Isaac Asimov relies on his ability to compare science fiction to existing concerns relating to human nature. The main character is a shallow, fashion-conscious woman who purchased a robot, Robbie, to keep her daughter, Gloria, occupied. Isaac Asimov makes it very clear that Gloria’s mother is not fond of robots being viewed as humans, which is shown when she states that Robbie “can’t help being faithful, loving, and kind. He’s a machine – made to do so” (I, Robot 25). Once her neighbors find robots out of fashion, she has second thoughts about Robbie and has him sent back to the factory he came from. Through “Robbie”, he has, in effect, “equated antirobot or antitechnology feeling with shallowness” (Goldman 19).
Overpopulation is a topic that Isaac Asimov writes about in many of his works to explain his opinion on this contemporary issue and the role of scientific advancements in this issue. Being a prestigious scientist, people often ask Isaac Asimov what he considers to be the greatest threat to the survival of human beings on earth. He always answers overpopulation, claiming that the world’s population doubles about once every fifty years. This means that by A.D. 2554, the head count will be 20,000 billion. Isaac Asimov believes that once this figure is reached, “the average population density over the entire surface of the earth, land, and sea would be equal to the average density, today, of Manhattan at noon” (Judson 79). The basis for The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov is provided by Plutonium-186. Critic Joseph F. Patrouch, Jr. describes Asimov’s intended purpose of this novel:
It is a story developing exactly those themes about which Asimov has spoken so pessimistically in his nonfiction. We are doing too little too late. Overpopulation, hunger, disease, pollution, fuel shortages, inequitable distribution of wealth-things will get a lot worse before they get any better, and they may never get any better. The resolution of the conflict in “Plutonium-186” is an accord of this thinking...He is not playing intellectual games or merely being entertaining. He is saying something important to him and to us. (Gunton 26)
The Gods Themselves is a great example of Isaac Asimov looking at the world straight and telling us, in fiction, what he sees. Some of his science fiction stories have been written mainly to persuade the reader to recognize or contemplate a particular problem. Some stories present possible solutions to problems and others suggest no solutions.
In his 1939 short story “Trends,” Isaac Asimov uses social science fiction to present the idea that with the capability of spaceflight comes social resistance, an idea that previous science fiction writers had never considered. This story is about the first flight to the moon, which Isaac Asimov predicted to occur in 1973. This is itself is an important insight, seeing as how the Soviet Union launched the first unmanned spaceship to the moon in 1959 and the United States landed on the moon in 1969. It is important to take into account the fact that many of Isaac Asimov’s works of science fiction have already or may someday become science fact. Many writers write about spaceflight to the moon, but in their stories the characters are always in favor of spaceflight. In “Trends,” soon before the first flight to the moon is to take place, there is a newspaper article published displaying the intent dislike towards spaceflight: “Our enraged citizenry may have to take matters into their own hands” (I, Robot 32). Asimov was only nineteen when he wrote “Trends” and the technological details in his description of the rockets design were proved wrong, but in the 1950s when the first flight to the moon took place, Isaac Asimov’s theory about public attitude toward spaceflight was proven correct; many people did indeed object to the idea.
Isaac Asimov creates a model for future science fiction writers to follow. Isaac Asimov’s science fiction does much to “make science fiction a critically accepted field, and his laws of robotics and the factual information in many of his stories have earned him the respect of laypersons and scientists alike” (Stein). He is one of the few science fiction writers who does not limit his audience by using complex sciences, or rather, he often uses complex sciences, but is always sure to explain them thoroughly and comprehensibly. He is also (reasonably) known for being very proud of his prolific style. In his murder-mystery novel Murder at the ABA, he makes himself a minor character, having the main character describe others’ opinions of him:
“He crossed the room once, at a book-an-author luncheon, and someone muttered in my ear ‘There goes Asimov pushing his self-assurance ahead of him like a wheelbarrow.’ (The same might be said of his abdomen, of course.) Someone else once said that Asimov walked as the he expected the air to part in front of him” (Murder 36).
His slight lack of humility is deserved; Isaac Asimov is the most productive and creative science fiction author in the history of American literature. Isaac Asimov truly is the founder of science fiction.
“Asimov, Isaac.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Ashwaubenon H. S. Lib., Green Bay. 31 March 2009
Asimov, Isaac. I, Robot. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1950.
---. Murder at the ABA. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1976.
---. The Gods Themselves. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1972.
Goldman, Stephen H. “Isaac Asimov.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. Ed. David Cowart. Vol. 8. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1981.
Gunn, James. Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc, 1982.
Holdstock, Robert. Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. London W1: Octopus Books Limited, 1978.
“Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. James P. Draper. Vol. 76. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1993.
“Isaac Asimov (1920-)” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Sharon R. Gunton. Vol. 19. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1981.
“Isaac Asimov (1920-)” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jean C. Stein. Vol. 26. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1983.
“Isaac Asimov.” Contemporary Authors Online. Gale Group Databases. Ashwaubenon H. S. Lib., Green Bay. 18 April 2009
Judson, Karen. Isaac Asimov: Master of Science Fiction. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.
Reid, Suzanne Elizabeth. Young Adult Science Fiction. New York, NY: Twayne Publishers,